Review: BiRDMAN LiVE offers Antonio Sanchez’s grounded, in-the-moment musical reactions

Birdman Live, which came to the Englert Theatre on March 1, features Antonio Sanchez playing drums to the movie Birdman — which makes sense, as he was the composer and performer for the score, which is one of the only scores to feature drums. Before the movie, Sanchez offered a short biographical account of his life as a drummer and the circumstances in which Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Birdman, had suggested that he score the film.

The score was recorded in two takes: the first before footage was shot, as Sanchez followed Iñárritu’s narration of the scenes, and the second after a rough cut of the movie and with an untuned, “dirtier” sounding drum kit and cymbal set. According to Sanchez, each performance of Birdman Live is a bit different: He knows where the drum part starts and stops, knows the rough tones and cadences that each scene requires, but he also allows each performance to differ. The shambling beats and cadences, the fills and volume, are not memorized. Each performance is a reflection of Sanchez’s relationship to the film that night, in that venue.

The performance adds three things to the viewing of the movie. The first thing I noticed was the vast amounts of the movie that remained unscored. After the opening sequence, Sanchez would move off stage and then return for his next scene. The gap between scored sequences foregrounded the amount of silence within the film in a useful way: It showed how dialogue, rather than strings and horns, could drive the intensity of the movie. Further, the moments that Sanchez did perform provided an instant and visceral awareness of difference. The drums were not used at emotional peaks, necessarily, but the shambling cadences instead were used in transitions between scenes, or during tracking shots of people walking from one place to another.

Video still of Antonio Sanchez in action.

The second element that Sanchez added deals with the question of performance. Birdman is, at least in part, a movie about the production of a play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. The questions of intonation, the variety of endings the film features, all remind the audience of the unfailing repeatability of performances in a film. As Walter Benjamin knew, films are the quintessential art form in an age of mechanical reproduction: Films never vary. The actors in a film are not like those in a play: They always act the same, whether we watch it on a tablet, in the theater, in an airplane or on the television.

What Sanchez adds through his jazz background is a reminder that performance should be grounded in ways that respond to the moment. While movies are excellent at capturing the best performances and integrating special effects, they lack the kind of responsiveness that one finds most often in theater. The live jazz drum performance offered the audience a chance to see how actors act (thematized in the movie) — within a certain set of parameters that nonetheless offer a fairly wide amount of improvisation. To see Birdman Live is to understand a bit more about jazz, a bit more about theater and a bit more about how art is a co-creative process.

The third important element that Birdman Live supplies its audience relates to the thematic question of “truth” that appears throughout the movie. What it means to tell the truth, the presence of gin or water, the game of truth or dare, the truth of criticism, the truth of the digital world of social media—all of these inform the “truth” at stake in Birdman.

What Sanchez offers by drumming alongside the film is visceral reminder of the truth of the film: It is a performance, a collaboration. By showing the collaborative nature of performance in this slightly artificial way, Sanchez reminds his audience that art is a unique event grounded in specific times, places and contexts. The truth of art comes in its particularity, its specificity, its unfolding in a moment-by-moment disclosure that each individual member of the audience attunes too differently. The addition of a live drummer adds a fourth dimension of the “super-reality” that the play within the movie is praised for possessing.

Sanchez is a brilliant drummer who clearly enjoys the opportunity to perform for audiences during an excellent film. Although some may balk at the price — especially given the fact that the movie has been out for two years and Sanchez plays for less than half of the movie — the experience, overall, is worth the admission. Not only does it allow the audience to watch a world-class drummer riffing on a brilliant film to create art, but it also reminds the audience of what authentic art demands of its makers and its witnesses.